From The Asian Reporter, V13, #10 (March 4-10, 2003), page 16.
the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey
By Pascal Khoo Thwe
Hardcover, 320 pages, $24.95
By Josephine Bridges
Pascal Khoo Thwe received the seventh annual Kiriyama Prize for From
the Land of Green Ghosts, the astonishing account of his childhood and
youth in Burma and his exile in Thailand and Great Britain. This prize is
awarded annually in recognition of books that "promote greater
understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asian
subcontinent." Readers who wish to increase their understanding of
one of the world’s most elusive countries would do well to begin with
this "Burmese Odyssey."
In his foreword, Cambridge University professor — and Thwe’s friend
and mentor — John Casey describes this memoir as "a spiritual
autobiography in which, uniquely, he writes with the point of view both of
a member of a bronze-age, newly literate tribe and of someone who in the
end managed to receive a Western education at a famous English
university." While Thwe’s life is indeed extraordinary, it is his
perspective that ultimately inspires wonder.
"Idyll of the Tribe" may be the title of the book’s first
part, but it is idyllic only in comparison with what follows. "My
mother couldn’t speak my father’s language, Padaung, when she married
him, only Karen. I myself ended up speaking Burmese, which is neither my
father’s nor my mother’s tongue," Thwe mentions in his prologue.
The first chapter, "The Goddess of Creation," contains stories
about the unlikely origin of mangoes and a mischievous creature named Big
Ball, as well as "A Very Short History" of Burma, a marvel of
concision and clarity. Thwe goes on to introduce readers to some of the
delicacies enjoyed by his tribe, the Padaung: baby wasps and beetles,
green caterpillars, porcupine, and armadillo.
In a chapter titled "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Padaung,"
Thwe tells a story of staggering corruption, when "Burma, which was
the world’s biggest exporter of rice before the Second World War, became
a net importer." We learn here that the "green ghosts" of
the title are "the most feared of all spirits," victims of
accidents and murders. The author’s grandfather, a powerful tribal
leader near death, quips that he hopes the queue for heaven "is not
as long as for the Socialist shops."
Thwe begins the central part of his narrative in Mandalay, Burma. At
the University of Mandalay, the author is taught that in the West
"things were so advanced that pigs could be grown on trees, and that
a type of furniture had been developed that could be eaten if ever food
supplies ran low." Another teacher instructs his class: "You may
talk of Western freedom, but here in Burma we have a far superior and more
genuine freedom." He backs this cruel and absurd assertion with
stories of how the ancient Burmese could "fly in the sky" and
"defeat the enemies of Burma simply by their use of the power of
thought." When a student who argues with this teacher is sent to a
hard-labor camp and then to an insane asylum, the teacher takes this as
proof that dissent was rationally unthinkable: "You see, all those
colonial and capitalist minions are mad. Don’t believe a word they
Speaking of madness, in 1985 and again in 1987 the Burmese government
de-monetized the nation’s currency. The first time around, all hundred-,
fifty-, and ten-kyat notes were declared worthless, to be replaced by
seventy-five-, thirty-five-, and fifty-kyat notes. Two years later, all of
these new notes, in addition to twenty-five-kyat notes, were de-monetized
without compensation, to be replaced by notes in amounts divisible by
nine, "which astrologers had long ago told General Ne Win was his
When Thwe witnesses soldiers killing peacefully demonstrating monks, he
is politically galavanized, and not long afterward sets off to join the
rebels fighting the Burmese army. Along the way, villagers living only
twenty miles from his home describe abuses the army has committed against
them, and he writes, "I was shocked at my own ignorance … I had
heard stories of atrocities like these … I had thought them invented, so
passively had I absorbed government propaganda." A great strength of
this book is Thwe’s articulate examination of internalized oppression.
Describing his parents’ generation, he writes, "In the end, perhaps
unconsciously, they assumed that to express any individual political
opinion was so shocking as to be virtually criminal."
The final part opens in Thailand, where Thwe is recuperating from
malaria and reading books lent to him by the son of Burmese hero Aung San
Suu Kyi. Despite misgivings over abandoning his friends and the struggle
in Burma, Thwe chooses to accept an offer to study at Cambridge
University, hoping to tell his country’s story to a bigger audience.
"I could not get away from the feeling not only that I had no
right to be here, but also that I had no right to have left the jungle, my
friends and what seemed to be my destiny. My sensitivity fed off both my
own culture of shame and the Western culture of guilt," writes Thwe
of his early days at Cambridge. "I felt like the Ancient Mariner,
cursed to tell my story all the time to strangers." "The hardest
thing, though, was the very idea of forming my own opinion." It never
does get easy. During a break in his final exams, the author picks up a
newspaper and learns that two of his friends have been "gunned down
in Burma by the pro-government militia."
From the Land of Green Ghosts is a stunningly written story. Pascal
Khoo Thwe’s command of his second language never falters. Bawdy,
scholarly, confessional, and poetic by turns, it carries its readers to a
land many of us wish never to set foot in, and a legacy we are relieved we
don’t share. We are better people for it. Now what can we do for Burma?
Green ghosts in Portland
Author Pascal Khoo Thwe, 2002 Kiriyama Pacific Rim
Prize-winner, visits Powell’s
If you ask a Paduang highlander from Myanmar’s lush
Shan Plateau, there’s five kinds of death. Each has its own spiritual
consequences. There’s the usual: perishing at childbirth, from illness,
and age. Normal passing. Then there’s the truly troublesome: mysterious
death and “raw” death.
Mysterious passing is, well, mysterious — unexplainable. Raw death is
sudden, like a car crash or a murder. Spirit is unexpectedly shaken free
from bones. Ghosts of folk suddenly dead often don’t know what happened,
and when they finally find out they’re not too happy about it. Most
don’t want to go. Many get really mad. They get green.
Hence the title of Paduang author Pascal Khoo
Thwe’s exquisitely executed memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts: A
Burmese Odyssey (reviewed by The Asian Reporter’s Josephine
Bridges, March 4, 2003).
Mr. Khoo Thwe left his tribe as a young man,
descending into the hot central plain of Mandalay to study in a Catholic
seminary. His family elders warned him against all the evils the big city
held, among them poisonous Burmese whiskey, Natsaya witches, and of course
hungry green ghosts.
Maybe that explains Mr. Khoo Thwe’s edginess when
he spoke at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne earlier this month. Maybe that
goes for all traditional peoples’ nervousness in urban Portland,
troubled as we are by intersecting mile-a-minute freeways and our
Myanmar-born, Cambridge-educated, now London-based,
writer Pascal Khoo Thwe won the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize in
2002 for his dreamy memoir. David Takani, reviewer for the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, said “more than just words on a page, the book
has the effect of an enthralling dream that lingers in the mind long after
Kirkus Reviews called the book “a
distinguished accomplishment that radiates both intelligence and spiritual
awareness .…” Not bad for an upcountry boy. Barely believable no
matter what neighborhood you’re from.
Mr. Khoo Thwe has packed into 36 years his tearful
departure from his hilly homelands; the horrible loss of his college
girlfriend to arrest, rape, then murder; his fortuitous escape from
Myanmar’s brutal military regime; and his education in one of the
West’s grandest institutions. Both Mr. Khoo Thwe’s Panduang tenderness
and the Cambridge polish so evident in his writing came through in his
presentation before a rain-sodden Portland crowd at Powell’s on
The author is a walking-talking study in unlikely
blends. East and West. Like his grandmother, who he says estimated the
newly arrived Christian God likely more powerful than their older mountain
and river spirits, and therefore pretty useful — Mr.
Khoo Thwe seems pretty astute at taking along with him all the
portable goods providence has provided him. And he does so with the
simplicity and sincerity of a Shan highlander.
“I was lucky,” he says, “to be brought up in the Old World.
To be brought up properly.”
Of his numerous near escapes, his recurring
stone-cold loneliness, his recent literary acclaim, Pascal Khoo Thwe says
without doubt, “for me as a Christian, it has all been Providence. It
means I have a mission in life, to return to Burma and help my people.”
The paperback version of From the
Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, published by Perennial this
month, is available for $13.95.